BACH, J.S.: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II (Landowska) (1951-1954) (Mark Obert-Thorn/ Wanda Landowska) (Naxos Historical: 8.111061-63)
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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2
Landowska's father was an amateur musician and lawyer in Warsaw. Her mother spoke six languages and was the first person to translate the works of Mark Twain into Polish. She also founded the first Berlitz Language School in Warsaw. Their daughter Wanda was born in Warsaw in 1879 and began to play the piano at the age of four. Her first teacher was Jan Kleczyński and she continued her tuition at the Warsaw Conservatory with Aleksander Michalowski. At seventeen Landowska went to Berlin to complete her studies in piano with Moritz Moszkowski and took lessons in composition from Heinrich Urban.
In 1900 Landowska moved to Paris, where she married Henri Lew. It was Lew, whom she had met in Berlin, who encouraged her to explore music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Landowska was introduced to Vincent d'Indy, Charles Bordes and Alexandre Guilmant who founded the Schola Cantorum in order to promote ancient music, as well as Albert Schweitzer. Between 1905 and 1909 Landowska wrote a number of scholarly articles which were published in book form as Musique Ancienne in 1909. From 1903 Landowska began to appear in public as a harpsichordist, and it is with this instrument that her name is usually connected, although she did continue to play the piano in public.
In 1907 Landowska visited Russia with her harpsichord, and on the second visit two years later played for Leo Tolstoy. She toured throughout Europe as a harpsichordist and just before the First World War taught at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. Landowska and her husband remained in Berlin, but as civil prisoners on parole, because they were French citizens. After the War, she taught harpsichord at the Conservatory in Basel for a short period and then returned to Paris, teaching at the Sorbonne and Ecole Normale de Musique.
Landowska's husband had been killed in a road accident in 1919. Landowska founded the Ecole de Musique Ancienne near Paris at Saint-Leu-la-Fôret, where she had settled in 1925. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s she continued to tour and perform on both the harpsichord and piano, often playing works specially written for her and her harpsichord such as the Concert Champêtre by Poulenc and the Concerto for Harpsichord by Manuel de Falla.
At the Nazi invasion of Paris, Landowska and her pupil and companion Denise Restout escaped, first to a town on the Spanish border, then to New York. In 1947 she settled in Lakeville Connecticut with Restout, whom she had met in 1933, and remained there for the rest of her life. She continued to perform into the 1950s and became renowned as the most eminent harpsichordist of the first half of the twentieth century, and the individual responsible for resurrecting the instrument and a scholarly approach to the performance of music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Although she made recordings in New York City during the late 1940s, from around 1950 Landowska preferred to record at her home in Connecticut and made her last recordings there at the age of eighty in the spring of 1959. Between 1949 and 1954 she recorded Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, which was begun to commemorate the bicentenary of the death of Bach in 1750, and indeed, the first eight Preludes and Fugues, recorded in Victor's Studio No. 2 in New York, were issued in America during the first few months of 1950. There was then a break of nearly a year before Landowska began to record the remainder of Book I in Connecticut, completing it around the beginning of 1951. Book II was recorded from July to August 1951, January to March 1952, December 1952 to February 1953, May, and August to October 1953, with the final sessions in January and March of 1954. This seems quite a long period in which to record three hours of music but many of the sessions were probably used for re-takes as RCA's expert team of producer John Pfeiffer, Richard Mohr and engineer Albert Pulley had to set up their RT-2 tape machines in Landowska's home, having to accommodate the natural acoustic of the room.
As with all of Landowska's recordings, what strikes the listener most is her vitality, her musical integrity, and her total commitment to the music she is playing. Today's scholars and academics may frown upon her idiosyncrasies of tempo, rhythm, added notes and rubato, but as a contemporary reviewer noted at the time, 'All such features of her playing should be studied and pondered, for here is a great musician interpreting in the light of long and fruitful experience and study. Those who know the score best should forget their theories and listen to what she has to say.'
Landowska's conviction in her interpretation is borne out by what she writes of the ornaments of the Prelude in C sharp minor. 'Each of these ornaments is made clear by Bach himself in the course of the piece. Thus we can play the prelude, certain that we are following his intention.' Sometimes her ideas of tempo strain the boundaries of acceptability, or rather, expectation. The Fugue in D major, for example, is played in a slow deliberate fashion, quite the reverse to many later interpretations which see it as a fast, jolly sort of a subject. Landowska wrote of this, 'After the jubilation of the Prelude, a meditative Fugue. Why the contrast? Bach did it purposely in order to create supreme serenity and plenitude.' One of the great works of the Well-Tempered Clavier Book II is the Prelude and Fugue in E major. Landowska, who rarely criticized Bach, thought the Fugue writing was more suited to that of a choir than a harpsichord. 'I always dreamed of hearing the E major Fugue sung by an a cappella choir, for I felt it was more vocal than instrumental. My dream was once fulfilled years ago in Paris. A few of my friends in the Chanteurs de St. Gervais sang it for me; and it confirmed my belief. This four-part Fugue is of incomparable magnificence. Its complex art is handled with unbelievable ease by Bach; glowing with the key of E major, it is one of the most perfect works of music.' Landowska finds a mood, style and character for each Prelude and Fugue. She finds the E minor Prelude 'quiet and peaceful' while the Fugue is 'combative', the staccato triplets conferring on the piece 'a character of vehemence…' Of the F sharp minor Prelude and Fugue, one of the most heartfelt in the collection, Landowska gave an interesting adumbration of her understanding of the emotion displayed in the work: 'When Bach writes of sorrow, it never crushes us. Perhaps because there is no trace of bitterness. This music, even if it describes rebellion or anguish, fortifies us.'
Critical opinion of these recordings at the time of their release was generally favourable although one critic found that the recording, 'also reveals a certain fussiness, a great labouring for distentions and contractions of phrase, for example, that one did not hear from her before the last war.' (This reviewer also wrote of 'Schubert's beautiful, long-winded Impromptus' played by Artur Schnabel). Another reviewer wrote in February 1952 of the first eight Preludes and Fugues, 'Whether one accepts her occasional rubato and her hesitations, whether one finds her tempi now on the fast side, now on the slow, whether, indeed, one takes her every effect and conception for gospel, there is no denying the power and conviction of her